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Recognizing a 'Whatever Works' Situation

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As parents of children with special needs, we're often up to our ears in goals. We want to promote our children's development, their speech, their movement, their manners, their behavioral control, their executive functioning, their fashion sense, their cognitive ability. We make rules, we order priorities, we try to make every moment live up to our standards.

And that's great, a lot of the time. A lot of the time, that's exactly what we need to do.

But there are those times when the first and foremost goal has got to be helping our child and our family through a rough spot. And when those situations arise, all other priorities and goals need to fall away. You need to do whatever your child needs you to do to avoid a meltdown or a missed deadline.

I call these "whatever works" situations. And at first, they may feel like you're lowering your standards, or letting your kid get away with murder, or being lazy in your dedication to Doing What's Right.

Let those recriminations fall away too.

It's natural to reorder priorities depending on the situation. You do it every time you break the speed limit because you're late. Every time you grab a donut because you don't have time for a good breakfast. Every time you stay up past your bedtime to finish some work. It doesn't mean that abiding by the law or good nutrition or adequate sleep are not important to you, just that sometimes, other things take precedence. Allow your child that same leeway. If you change the way you do things when you're stressed, choose alternate priorities during stressful situations for your child as well.

For example, if mornings are difficult in your house, then mornings are a "whatever works" situation. The primary goal is getting your child out on time in as low-stress a mood as possible. That means you don't pick fights over things that don't contribute to that goal. You don't add tasks that don't contribute to that goal. You help with things you might otherwise challenge your child to do himself. You leave chores and lessons for another time. The out-the-door deadline and a school-receptive state of mind are the top priorities and the definitions of success.

For many families, church is a "whatever works" situation. The primary goal is getting your child through a worship service without a meltdown. That means you don't insist on fancy sensory-insensitive clothes. You allow for snacks and quiet amusements. You give rewards in very short segments of time. You leave while things are successful rather than staying until they aren't. A peaceful experience of worship, however brief, is the top priority and definition of success.

Often, extended-family gatherings are a "whatever works" situation. They're stressful for you and your child both, and so you will be partners in making it through without trauma. That means you won't expect your child to exercise new social or verbal or physical skills. You'll create opportunities for calming play. You'll bring food your child can enjoy safely. You'll limit how much your child has to share by keeping important playthings private. The priority is not pleasing your mother-in-law or showing off your parenting skills; it's helping your child stay in control. That's the definition of success, and by the way, a pretty impressive display of parenting skill right there.

How do you know something is a legitimate "whatever works" situation, and not just an excuse to be lazy?

+ The priority you set is important to your child and at least as useful as the priorities you're placing it above.

+ The priorities you are setting aside come from Basket B in the three-basket battle-sorting system; that is, they're not the few essential never-budge rules, but the rules that you allow your child some negotiation on. In a "whatever works" situation, you choose to let those negotiations slide.

+ Getting through the situation successfully feels good -- it feels like a triumph. You don't feel guilty afterwards.

+ Your "whatever works" adjustments are ones you can teach to your child so that, as an adult, he or she can do those things personally just as you do. There's your goal.

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